Tag Archives: hieroglyphics

A win for the shmos

monopoly (noun)
mo·​nop·​o·​ly | \ mə-ˈnä-p(ə-)lē
1 : exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action
2 : exclusive possession or control

By the way, this is the beauty of the free market. The Egyptian scribes weren’t about to change hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics was job security. Hieroglyphics could be read or written by the scribes only—scribes were an elite class because hieroglyphics is so difficult. The scribes controlled who got to read or write. The scribes had a monopoly. But the Phoenician traders had a big-time need for an efficient writing system. A new technology—the alphabet—was invented, the traders enthusiastically adopted it, and so the scribes’ monopoly was busted up.

Here’s homework (yay!): can you think of a communications technology today that’s owned and closely guarded by a small handful of people? What would happen if someone—maybe you—invented a simple, accessible different technology to replace it?


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Canaanite turquoise miners fool around with hieroglyphics during lunch break

My pals (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregulars) Ilene L and Jeffrey K each sent me a link to this Nova series on PBS about the origins of the alphabet—in it, archaeologist Orly Goldwasser asserts that a group of Canaanite turquoise miners working in Egypt were fooling around with hieroglyphics and almost-by-accident invented the alphabet. I think it’s a compelling theory—that’s exactly how a creative mind works: by fooling around. Okay so far. If that’s how it happened, their invention would still need to be promoted, spread far-and-wide, made popular. How do you do that?

The beautiful top drawing of an ox head was drawn by an expert drawer. Under that is an ox head as the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol Aleph. Under that is a pathetic attempt at drawing ox heads by some ham-fisted Canaanite turquoise miner. At the bottom is our letter A.

The Phoenician traders and all their customers needed an efficient writing system to keep business records. The alphabet turned out to be the writing system they needed. The Phoenician trade routes were a communications network—like social media today but without the kitten photos. Those sea-captains visited every port around the Mediterranean Sea. Once the Phoenicians started using the alphabet, everybody started using the alphabet.

And how did the Canaanite miners get their invention to Phoenician sea-captains? You kids who go to Sunday school and Hebrew school knew this one already. Look in the back of your study bibles at the map—the Phoenician cities Sidon, Byblos and Tyre are in the Land of Canaan. Canaanites = Phoenicians.

Very good article here: https://barzilaiendan.com/2012/06/08/cine-a-inventat-alfabetul/

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Twenty-two little letters

‘A’ is ‘Aleph’ and ‘B’ is ‘Beta’—where the word ‘alphabet’ comes from. Aleph and Ayin are glottal stops (‘), like how some people pronounce the double-T in ‘kitten’ or ‘button.’ There are 2 Hs, Ts and Ss—even a third symbol for the impure S, ‘SH.’

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

Twenty-two letters! Compare that with the hundreds of symbols (and their variations) you need to memorize so you can understand cuneiform or hieroglyphics or Demotic script. An alphabet of symbols that represent only sounds can be arranged to spell any word you can think of. Suddenly regular shmos could read and write.

Phonetic: a symbol equals sound. Now you know where ‘phonetic’ comes from—those good ol’ Phoenicians.


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A sea-change

Sure, they would have used Demotic script but hieroglyphics is much funnier.

If you own one of these Phoenician trading ships, you’re carrying cloth or papyrus or books or glass or copper or oil. You need to keep track of all that merchandise, how much it cost you and how much you want to sell it for. You’ll be putting in to different ports, unloading some of your cargo and taking on new merchandise. You need to keep records of what you sold and what you bought and who ordered which merch in advance. Egyptian hieroglyphics are way too complicated—even Demotic is cumbersome with symbols for entire syllables—and having a scribe aboard was an additional expense.

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

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The hardest cryptogram evurrrr

Champollion doing that weird Napoleonic hand-in-the-vest-for-my-portrait thing

A cryptogram is a puzzle where the letters of words are replaced with ciphers. A cipher is any symbol. To ‘decipher’ a code is to replace the ciphers with the correct letters. I told you the secret to solving cryptograms: you look for a short, common word, like ‘the.’ Young began the process by correctly identifying the word ‘Ptolemy.’

Jean-François Champollion (ZHEHN frahn-SWAH shahm-pōl-YŌN) was the tireless French scholar who broke the hieroglyph code. He started with Young’s discovery and used the Greek words to decipher the hieroglyphic and Demotic versions. He figured out that Ptolemy’s name was a rebus—meaning that those symbols must represent sounds. That was a beginning. He still had years of diligent work ahead of him. Eventually, in 1822 he was able to show that hieroglyphic symbols could stand for things, ideas, syllables or sounds. Demotic symbols stood for syllables or sounds. He’d sorted out how the reader can tell which of those a symbol stands for.

And so, after thirteen centuries of silence, the hieroglyphics could speak again. Nowadays if you put ‘Rosetta Stone’ in your search engine you’ll get ads for a company that teaches foreign languages. The Rosetta Stone was so crucial to solving the hieroglyphics mystery that it’s become a symbol for understanding all languages.


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Cartouche is not something you get from a long automobile trip

The Rosetta Stone has 3 writing systems: hieroglyphic, Demotic and ancient Greek

The big deal here is that there is one message written 3 times in different languages—just like Darius’ proclamation a few posts back. One of the Rosetta Stone languages is Greek. If you can read Greek, maybe you can piece together Ancient Greek. The next step is to treat the hieroglyphs and Demotic like a cryptogram. You look for common, recognizable words. An English physicist named Thomas Young saw the word ‘Ptolemy’ in Ancient Greek and figured it must also show up in the other 2 versions. Ptolemy was the pharaoh—a pretty important guy.* The hieroglyphic version of the Rosetta Stone has some symbols that look more important than the others. They’re inside a rounded rectangular shape called a cartouche (kar-TOOSH). Could those symbols spell out ‘Ptolemy?’

Here’s a close-up of the hieroglyphics with the cartouche: https://www.ancient.eu/image/5317/rosetta-stone-detail-hieroglyphic-text/?=&page=3
Scroll down to see the 3 different versions of ‘Ptolemy:’ https://abagond.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/rosetta-stone/

* Ptolemy was 13 years old when the Rosetta Stone was inscribed. He was Pharaoh of all Egypt. When I was 13 years old I was drawing cartoons in my room. My favorite food was peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

You can be a pharaoh, too! Just create a rebus of your name inside this cartouche which I thoughtfully drew for you. For example, if your name is ‘Doug,’ draw a dog. If your name is ‘Bethany-Mehitabel,’ you’ll need to do a lot more drawing.

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Napoleon’s soldiers discover something big

Here we go—we’re zooming ahead another bunch of centuries. I know, I know, we’ve bounced around time like a bb in a boxcar. You still want to find out how we know what ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics say, right? Of course you do.

It’s ad 1799, everybody! England had her trading empire—in Canada, the Middle East and India. Meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte was building the French Empire. Napoleon was another of those military geniuses who considered the day wasted that wasn’t spent conquering some country. He was utterly ruthless and would do anything for more power. Napoleon had the idea to establish a military base in Egypt from where he could launch attacks on British forces in the Middle East. One day, on the Nile delta near the town of Rashid (‘Rashid’ was too much of a mouthful so the French soldiers shortened it to ‘Rosette’) Napoleon’s engineers were expanding the foundations of his fort. As they dug, they ran into rubble from old, forgotten walls. A piece of this rubble was a ‘stela’ (STAY-lah): a stone with lettering chiseled into it.

Hang on, though—the lettering was in 3 writing systems: hieroglyphic, Demotic and Ancient Greek. The French officer in charge, Pierre-François Bouchard (pee-AIR frahn-SWAH boo-SHAR), was a smart cookie who recognized right away how important the Rosetta Stone is. He had the soldiers stop digging with their iron shovels and picks and carefully, very gently, tenderly lift the Rosetta Stone out of the sand and wipe it clean with soft cloths. After that he let them go back to shooting cannonballs at the sphinx’ nose. (Kidding! Kidding!—they didn’t really.)

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That old wheel of fortune

The Hagia Sophia. This style of church is called a basilica: an enormous dome set on a square base. I drew it as it was in its heyday, before being goombah’d up with minarets.

You see how this went? Christianity, which had been oppressed and persecuted 500 years earlier, grew popular within the Roman Empire until the Church came to be in charge and so now it squashed down the other religions. It’s never a bad idea to be aware of this stuff—what they call a ‘cultural shift.’ Which religion (or ideology) is in charge now? Where is it promoted? How is it promoted? Which religion or ideology is being discouraged? An easy way to tell is: look at what ideology you can make fun of—and what you’re not allowed to make fun of. If you mock a way of thinking and scorn is heaped upon your head, or your opinion gets you in trouble, or your opinion gets blocked on social media—the ideology you’re mocking is in charge.

I’m a Christian, which means Jesus is my Savior. You can expect me to champion Christianity’s indispensable role in shaping our great civilization. Nevertheless, I try to stay clear-eyed about Christianity’s past. All human beings are flawed. We Christians regularly fail at being Christ-like. Not only that, we live in a fallen, constantly-changing world. Religions and ideologies gain and lose their influence. Justinian built what may be the most magnificent Christian church human beings had ever seen—the Hagia Sophia. Fifteen hundred years later, it’s a mosque—a Muslim house of worship. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/hagia-sophia

If you’d like to learn more about Justinian, try this fascinating book: Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen. It covers everything about that place and time but its focus is the bubonic plague. This year seems like a good time to read it. Highly recommended by me! http://www.justiniansflea.com/

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People in charge sure like to close things down

Now we zip ahead about 150 years to Emperor Justinian. You knew I’d get back to Egyptian hieroglyphics eventually, right? Justinian wanted to discourage all religions that weren’t Christianity, so in ad 537 he closed the Egyptian temples where they worshiped ‘small-g’ gods Horus and Anubis and other deities (DAY-i-teez). With that, there was no need to read hieroglyphics anymore (‘hieroglyphics’ means ‘words of the gods’). After a couple of generations there was nobody left who could read or write or understand hieroglyphics.

Beware, this link has a buttload of pop-up ads: https://classroom.synonym.com/temple-isis-ancient-egypt-7517.html
What a visual treat! Look at this animated recreation of the Philae temple complex: https://www.realmofhistory.com/2017/10/03/reconstruction-philae-ancient-egypt/

It’s official!

In ad 380, Christianity had become so popular that Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the Empire.

It wasn’t quite so easy as that. Theodosius was a Christian, but he wasn’t very good at it. In fact, he ordered a horrific massacre to put down a rebellion. Bishop Ambrose wouldn’t let Theodosius into the church until he’d properly repented. It was a clash of wills. Ambrose insisted that you need to be humble before you can enter God’s house. Theodosius did repent and worked harder to be a better Christian, like stop massacring people so much. The upshot was that now everyone in the Empire—including the Emperor—submitted to the Church rather than the Church submitting to the Emperor.

Don’t worry—we’re still getting around to how we lost hieroglyphics.


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